Comment & analysis

Making progress on security and justice in Myanmar: interview with Kim Jolliffe

4 December 2019 Kim Jolliffe Making progress on security and justice in Myanmar: interview with Kim Jolliffe

Last month, we launched our latest report exploring the democratisation of Myanmar’s security and justice institutions. In the second part of an interview with the report’s author, Kim Jolliffe discusses the role of the military in the country and how oversight of the security sectors and public engagement can be improved.

Can you explain the history of the military (the Tatmadaw) and its role in governing Myanmar?

Today’s Tatmadaw can be traced back to the 1940s, when a group of young independence activists called the ‘thirty comrades’ partnered with Japan and helped the expanding empire conquer Myanmar from the British in 1942. They then switched sides and retook the country with the Allies in 1945, but demanded independence. Later that year, the Kandy Agreement led to the Burma Army being formed under British patronage. It included the independence forces as well as Karen, Kachin and other ethnic forces that had been allied with the British for the entire war.

Shortly after independence the army nearly collapsed, with more than half its troops deserting or defecting to rising insurgencies. It was taken over by Ne Win, a staunch nationalist who was only 37 years old. He expanded and re-built the military quickly, mostly recruiting Bamar soldiers, and spread it across the whole country, including to non-Bamar (or ‘ethnic’) areas that had previously been semi-autonomous. He took control of the government in 1962 and placed the police and all intelligence services under military control. He also created Light Infantry Divisions that became the lead forces in a strategy of burning hundreds of villages and forcibly relocating hundreds of thousands of people believed to be supporting insurgents.

Despite Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy gaining widespread popularity in the late 1980s, the military continued to rule, claiming it needed to protect the country from disintegrating. When military commander Than Shwe came to power in the early 1990s, he focused on modernising the Tatmadaw with new aircraft, warships, missile systems and other capabilities. He also expanded the military’s private business operations considerably. But the tactics and strategies in ethnic areas remained stuck in the past and were extremely harsh, including widespread sexual violence. Intelligence Chief Khin Nyunt greatly expanded the intelligence apparatus during this period, heavily monitoring all activists and society, especially those linked to the National League for Democracy.

The military has now established a hybrid democracy system, in which it governs alongside elected civilians but still has near autonomy in defence affairs and controls the police, prisons and intelligence agencies. The military’s current Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing has continued the modernisation programme and Myanmar’s defence systems are relatively advanced for such a poor country. The army’s tactics and conduct have not improved, however, and it continues to use extreme violence against civilians. The military has failed to defeat any ethnic armed organisations or so-called ‘terrorists’, so the country remains trapped in a cycle of violence. The military also maintains vast business interests.  

What are the Tatmadaw’s doctrines and how are they translated into practice?

The Tatmadaw has a rich institutional culture of its own and develops doctrine and strategy internally at the National Defence College. But as it is so secretive, it very rarely publishes this material or any kind of public strategy or policy. What we know is that its main principles include ‘People’s War’, which treats the entire population as a resource in warfare that could either be used for or against the military. This doctrine influences the military’s counterinsurgency strategies, which aim to stop people from supporting ethnic armed organisations. Early documents outlining the strategies focus on winning over the people’s support and turning them against the insurgents. But, in practice, the main approach has been to burn down their villages and force them to live in military-controlled camps or to flee across borders. This has caused decades of systematic human rights abuses.

The People’s War doctrine is also linked to a strategy to convert ethnic armed organisations into state-backed militia: the Tatmadaw offers them economic concessions in return for loyalty, which often forces them to splinter into multiple factions. The Tatmadaw has not conclusively defeated a single ethnic armed organisation in recent decades and these strategies have caused unimaginable human suffering, while allowing large armed criminal networks to form across the country, extracting considerable wealth from the economy and abusing people. This has also made political dialogue much more difficult to achieve as the groups are so divided, and some are making huge profits from war. A new approach is needed.

Since 2010, what progress has been made in the security and justice sector in Myanmar?

The main difference is that there is much more transparency and the main powers and responsibilities are now shared more widely across the government, parliament and judiciary. Before, everything was controlled by Than Shwe. Now the affairs of government are debated openly, authorities’ actions are scrutinised and policies are produced for the public to see. This is all discussed in the newspapers and in the teashops, streets, village meetings and so on. Many of these institutional changes are laying the groundwork for future generations of politicians, activists, lawyers and other professionals to create more meaningful change, even where the actual practices are currently shaped by old habits. For example, according to the constitution, the judiciary is now independent. This is a huge leap forward on paper, but, in practice, the judiciary is full of judges and staff who are either from the military or who previously served under the military government and who continue to see themselves as mere functionaries and just follow orders. The important thing is that there is now a foundation to build on, and it is crucial that incoming judges and those currently in training take judicial independence seriously. The institutional setup today is fundamentally different to the one in 2010 – it now depends on pro-democrats from all walks of life to keep pushing and claiming space to make substantive change happen.

How would you define current civil-military relations in Myanmar?

Within government, civil-military relations are essentially the relations of two people: Min Aung Hlaing and Aung San Suu Kyi, who both oversee highly centralised blocs of power and hundreds of obedient followers. Even in parliament, where you have 110 unelected military officers and 26 retired military officers alongside 135 former political prisoners and many other civilians from dozens of parties, civil-military relations are shaped mostly by relations between those two figures. Relations are very tense but are rarely openly confrontational. They are both vying for power, with Aung San Suu Kyi trying to remove the military from politics and Min Aung Hlaing claiming that the country needs the military to play guardian in order to avoid chaos.

What are the main differences between the National League for Democracy and the Tatmadaw on security and justice-related issues?  

The National League for Democracy wants to remove the military from politics and turn it into a professionalised force. It also wants to make the police independent and strengthen the independence of the judiciary. The Tatmadaw insists that it has to play a leading role in matters of defence and security in order to defend the country’s sovereignty. In reality, it also wants to defend its private interests and escape any future legal action. They have few disagreements about Tatmadaw conduct, however, as Aung San Suu Kyi has refused to openly criticise the military and has shown little concern about human rights abuses.

Which institutions are the main providers of security and justice services in Myanmar?

The tri-service armed forces of the army, navy and air force are responsible for external defence, counterinsurgency and emergency response. Unlike most militaries around the world, its mandate includes politics and economic affairs.

The Myanmar Police Force is under the military-led Ministry of Home Affairs and is responsible for countering crime and maintaining public order, with specific bodies for countering human trafficking, protecting forests and road traffic, among others. The police also have security battalions that are highly militarised and have regularly used excessive force against protestors or have taken part in both intercommunal and military-led violence.

The correctional department runs dozens of prisons and labour camps and is responsible for the punishment of criminals. Its current mandate is mostly punitive and does not include enough of a focus on rehabilitation of prisoners to ensure they can reintegrate safely into public life.  

The judiciary is responsible for administering justice and ensuring that the law is correctly interpreted and applied. A major function is interpreting and ruling on specific cases in trials and court hearings. On paper its mandate is to be independent from political influence and apply cases in an impartial manner. In practice it remains heavily influenced by military officials and government.

The main intelligence agencies are the Office of the Chief of Military Security Affairs, the Myanmar Police Force’s Special Branch and the Bureau of Special Investigation. They all report directly or indirectly to the Tatmadaw with little oversight from civilian leaders. Their mandates are varied but include a notable focus on monitoring internal political movements.  

What options or opportunities are available to improve oversight of the security sectors and increase public engagement?

Continued hard work is needed from a wide range of individuals and organisations such as journalists, researchers, academics, teachers, activists, lawyers and civil society groups to push for greater transparency and accountability from the government on security and justice affairs. The recent ‘justice for Victoria’ case, as well as protests to free journalists like Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, are all crucial. Women’s organisations from various backgrounds have been relentless in their advocacy for a law for the prevention of violence against women, and the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners has been pushing for comprehensive, system-wide reform of the penal system. Human rights organisations continue to document abuses by the military and demand action to end impunity for offending soldiers. The government should view all of these diverse actors as allies and not enemies. In fact, Aung San Suu Kyi has argued that a strong democracy makes room for criticism and opposition from the public and responds by working in the public interest. International organisations and individuals also can provide local independent groups in these affairs with technical support and sometimes with funding – however, these are ultimately local responsibilities and should be led by people within Myanmar.

Photo: J Paing.